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July 5, 2011updated 25 Jan 2016 6:30pm

Devon or Hell?

By Clive Aslet

No jobs, no shops, no phone reception. Still, Dartmoor on a sunny day is just lovely… isn’t it, asks Clive Aslet
this has been. I’ve been shuttling up and down to Dartmoor every month, where the default position is precipitation. In March, I went to see an old boy who said he would show me the village and was dismayed to see him clamber into the sort of gear usually used by lifeboat men — he could have been dropped into the sea and still come out dry next to the skin.

He was right, of course; the rain set in and, hatless, I was soaked. On the road to Tavistock, the fog was as thick as Vichyssoise. But the next day was fine, and so it remained. Incredible. Presumably one result of the fine weather will be more people wanting to live in the country. As a destination, Dartmoor must be top of the list.

This is strange when you consider its historical reputation. In the Elizabethan period, it was considered a desert — rude, sterile and unsafe to cross. As readers of The Hound of the Baskervilles will know, horses often got stuck in the bogs and sometimes disappeared. Like Cornwall, this was a mining area, the tinners being subject to their own stannary courts.

Lydford was the capital of the Devon stannary, where the castle was used as a prison. It was notoriously foul, but a spell there was marginally better than being hanged — a punishment that, under the notorious Lydford law, was sometimes meted out, for administrative convenience and cost efficiency, before the trial had taken place. (There was a trial, of course: due process had to be observed. It merely took place after the defendant had been dispatched.)

In 1510, Richard Strode MP was thrown into the prison for complaining that mining debris was blocking up the course of rivers. He called the jail one of the ‘most annoious, contagious and detestable places wythin this realme’. He wasn’t the last MP to find himself incarcerated — there are a few in jug now, including my friend Elliot Morley — but Strode’s experience was so outrageous that the system of parliamentary immunity was introduced.

Now, people visit villages like Lydford because they seem to be marvellously unchanged. That’s only because they don’t know what they used to be like. Around Dartmoor, the tin gave out, then the copper, until arsenic mining was just about all that was left. Even that had gone by 1914.

If you were a member of a family of fourteen, there were precious few openings in the early 20th century; advertisements in the Tavistock Gazette beckoned fit young farmers and domestic servants to Canada and Australia. Thousands left. I’m told that, despite the huge losses suffered by the British Army during the First World War, the rural population was still higher at the end of it than it would have been if pre-war trends had continued. Returning soldiers found nothing much changed to improve their prospects between the wars, as farming floundered like a horse in a bog.

But it was a farming community. Most people in Lydford would have kept a pig or a cow and some chickens. Sheep were herded along the village street; that hasn’t been seen for years. The farm animals have all gone from the centre of the village, and the byres that housed them converted to human dwellings. The stonemasons, thatchers, carpenters — they’ve all gone, too. In their place have come, largely, retired folk.

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There are still a couple of pubs in the village, supported by the caravan park, leisure being the other big industry down here. But for anything else you have to get in the car. The nearest town is Okehampton. Things are so bad there, following the closure of a dairy and a food processor, that the Baptist church is handing out food parcels.

I used to think broadband would be the salvation of rural areas. Entrepreneurs would move to the countryside for quality of life, and their presence would create jobs. I’d forgotten that a county like Devon simply doesn’t operate on the same basis as the South East. If, like me, you need to buy a computer charger, you’ll find one in Exeter. But if you then find it doesn’t work, you’ll have to go all the way back — a round trip of 60 miles — to change it. That takes quite a long time.

When I came down to breakfast the other morning, my hostess took her mobile phone down from a bar of the sash window. She’d propped it there because it’s the only place in the house with a chance of getting a signal. Tavistock is quite a big place, by North Devon standards, but not even that is well served. Perhaps that’s not such a deprivation, for the joy of living in a National Park. But National Parks come at a price — it’s called bureaucracy. One couple bought a bungalow in Lydford with the intention of tearing it down to replace it with a stone-built cottage in better keeping with the traditional character of the place. Not a chance, said the planning officer. The bungalow, hideous though it be, must be preserved as part of the history of the village. The couple have moved.

Enjoy the sunshine; actually living in the countryside seems to get more and more difficult. History says that Dartmoor means trouble. History may be right. 

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